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"Reading The Sex Squad is like...spending a pleasureable hour captivated by a master of self-revealing and self-glorifying anecdoate." —Lambda Book Report
"Though no holds are barred in the description of their sexual antics, this is not just an orgiastic world...The Sex Squad will be especially interesting to balletomanes, as the celebrities of that world are featured—including Mr. Bing and Anthony Tudor in questionable circumstances." —Quentin Crisp
"Leddick evokes a delicate air of melancholy as his narrator considers the ravages of time and illness." —The New York Times Book Review on The Sex Squad
"A disarming and memorable debut...Gay fiction of high order: insightful, funny, prickly, opinionated, knowing, lovely, and sad." --Kirkus Reviews on My Worst Date
St. Vincent's Hospital
There was a very black nurse's aide in a very pink dress seated near the foot of his bed. She said, "We have to keep someone with him all the time. He tried to kill himself, that's why they brought him in."
I read the chart at the foot of his bed. Advanced lung cancer. One lung already removed. Seropositive for AIDS. "Shouldn't he be in an oxygen tent?" I asked.
"They're bringing one right now," she said.
Siegfried turned his head and opened his eyes. "Hi, Harry," he said. "Come to watch me die?"
"He knows you, Doctor," the nurse said.
"And I know him," I told her.
"I didn't plan to come visit you, Illy," I said. "I just sort of stumbled upon you while making my rounds."
"You work here?" he sort of mumbled. "I didn't even know you were a doctor."
"Can't we hurry up that oxygen tent?" I said to the nurse.
"I'll go get it myself," she said, and left.
I went to stand by the bed and took Siegfried's hand. Siegfried Ilquist. He had been very handsome when we were dancers together at the opera. The Metropolitan Opera. Thirty years ago almost exactly. I left the opera in 1958. Now it's almost 1990. Siegfried Ilquist was considered the handsomest man in New York. He thought his eyes were too small and wore dark glasses whenever he could. Then he was really handsome. He had a great nose--a perfect nose. And beautifully sculpted lips. It was all still pretty much there but covered in fine wrinkles. Like a beautiful statue worn by the sun and the wind. He smiled and squeezed my hand with his eyes shut, his face towards the ceiling. He knew I was looking at him. "Surveying the wreckage," he would have said.
He was wearing a hospital gown with little figures on it, tied at the back of the neck. With his eyes still shut, he said, "I disconnected my oxygen tank so I could end all this. But Anne found me and called the hospital. So here I am. Still on this earth."
"How is Anne?" I said. I tightened my grip on his hand. He was struggling to breathe. "She's an advertising writer now," he said. "And you're a doctor. It's a long way from Aida."
It was a long way. Illy and I had been sort-of lovers when we were at the opera. I don't think we were really in love. I, at least, was really in love with Rex Ames. That was before I stopped dancing. Before I went to college. Before I became a doctor. Before a lot of things happened. It was before I was twenty years old, even. Homosexuality? It's just something you get used to.
The nurse came back with the interns and set up the tent, put the oxygen tanks in place, turned them on.
The tanks hissed and Siegfried began to breathe more easily. The nurse put her arm under his shoulders and arranged his pillows; then she pulled him up into a more comfortable position. When she straightened the sheets, I saw how thin his legs were. Those once powerful thighs had dwindled to little more than skin over the femurs. Remembering when they were bronzed and powerful, I thought, Loving people is like loving clouds. His cock dangled down, darkened and small. I remembered that very well, too. Much bigger and wonderfully shaped. It fit the mouth as though the two were designed to fit together.
When I look at people's eyes sideways, they look like glass doll's eyes, and I realize that we are just some kind of machine. How ridiculous it is to fall in love with someone's penis.
I straightened his blanket. "I'll be back, Illy," I said, "Take it easy. You're all right now." He smiled, his lids hooding his eyes. The way he'd always smiled. Something Asiatic about it. Keeping his thoughts to himself. His background was Norwegian. The distant Tartar blood showed a little in his tilted-up eyes with their sheltering lids, or would it be the Lapps from far-off Lapland?
I walked home to Greenwich Street. Interesting theory, the dual universes. That somewhere there is another planet Earth with another New York and another Greenwich Street. I've already lived in that alternate New York. When I was a dancer, my mother and I lived on Sixteenth Street, just a few minutes' walk from here. My lover Rex Ames once lived just down Bank Street, only a few doors from the corner where I now live in half of an almost Revolutionary-period house. When I used to go to Rex's apartment, I passed my house but never saw it. We went to the movies together at the old Loew's Sheridan, which was right across the street from St. Vincent's. Held hands in the balcony while we watched I Want to Live. This was pretty unusual and sentimental for Rex. There was no clue that someday I would be stalking the halls of that same hospital. Now I walk through the same physical places, but different lives were lived there when I was under twenty. It's almost as though they had been swept away. It's unimaginable that one can be living in a completely different world yet in the very same place. At least they swept away Loew's Sheridan. Replaced it with a place where they store garbage cans, I think. That is infinitely more modern.
The other day, I passed the old building on Sixteenth Street where Mother and I lived, and it has been redone. A new brick facade. No more high iron-railed stoops. Nobody drops their garbage out of the third-floor window into the garbage cans in the street anymore, leaving bits of eggshell and orange rind on the windowsills all the way down. But I'm sure the same narrow little apartments are still inside. Squeezing other people's hearts into something like a reasonable shape so they can survive on this planet.
How I Became a Dancer
We came to New York, my mother and I, when I was seventeen. Just seventeen. To pursue our careers in dance. My mother was the one who wanted to be a dancer. I was just along for the ride.
My mother's name was-is-Elizabeth. Everyone back in Michigan called her Betty. Once we left Michigan, she decided she wanted to be called Belle-Mere. She pronounced it Belle-Meer. To rhyme with "peer" and "sheer" and "leer." And "queer." Only when I was studying French in college later did I learn it meant "mother-in-law." When I told her she said, "Who knows? Who cares? That's the least of the things we did wrong." We? I still don't know how much she knows. I'm not going to ask her, that's for sure.
My mother was a Red Shoes victim. She did have long legs and red hair, I'll give her that, but Moira Shearer she wasn't. Unfortunately, she was thirty-six years old when she saw The Red Shoes, so she couldn't even do a Zelda Fitzgerald. But, by God, she tried.
We were from Whitehall, Michigan. The Potters arrived in Whitehall on the Lake Michigan shore at the time of the Civil War. That was my father's family. My mother was a Glover. I guess the Glovers arrived about the same time, when it was just woods and Indians. When Elizabeth Glover married Harry Potter, it was just what the folks in Whitehall had expected.
They evidently didn't expect Harry to run off with Miss Whitehall when I was ten. She was one of the DeBeers girls. As my grandmother Glover used to say, not unkindly but factually, "She was one of those girls from down by the lake." We lived on a bluff called Christian Hill. I think you get the idea.
I didn't see much of my father after he left town. I didn't see much of him before. Like most fathers, he found having a family crushingly dull. My memories of him, when he was home, consist largely of him lying on the couch listening to baseball games and smoking. That he found interesting. I played baseball quite well in high school--I'm well coordinated--but I never found it interesting. I'm just not a spectator kind of guy. Even when I was a dancer, I enjoyed doing it but I never particularly liked to watch other people do it.
I'm certain no one in Whitehall expected my mother to become a ballet fanatic. But she did. She dragged me to Detroit to see Roland Petit and Zizi Jeanmaire dance Carmen. I must have been twelve by then. It was pretty hot stuff for a preteen. I'd never seen anyone slide up and down someone else's thighs in their underwear before. I haven't often since. Well, that's not true. Anyway, my mother didn't seem to think it was too shocking for her child to see. She loved it.
We followed that up by going to Chicago to see the New York City Ballet. Melissa Hayden in The Cage. More sliding up and down other people's thighs. I think Belle-Mere might have started to get discouraged at this point except that Maria Tallchief danced a one-act Swan Lake the same evening. And that got Mother all worked up again.
After that, we went back to Whitehall and she began reading. I remember an avalanche of books pouring across the dining room table. While I was studying Algebra for Beginners, she was reading Beaumont's Book of Ballets. While my eyes were popping open over the big news about the Jukes and the Kallikaks in Biology 1, she was having to force her lids down a little, too, as she discovered what really went on between Nijinsky and Diaghilev. At least as Romola Nijinsky told it.
Ballet bibliography must have been hard to find in the backwoods of Michigan in the early 1950s, but Belle-Mere managed it. I distinctly remember she was infatuated with Mathilde Kchessinska, an imperial ballerina. I asked her what it meant to be "the bauble of the Czar," but she wasn't answering. I knew damn well what it meant, I just wanted to bug her. Secretly, I'm sure she was crushed that there weren't any more czars and that there was no hope of her becoming a bauble.
During that winter, she began to transform her plans for a dancing career for herself to include me. I guess it became increasingly clear to her that to become a classical ballet dancer, one had to start young.
I knew something was in the wind when I came home after a freshman basketball game with Rothbury we lost twenty-seven to eight. She had been to the game and seen me in my baggy shorts. She said, "You've got nice legs, Harry." I'm Harry Junior. "You've got my side of the family's legs. We all have nice legs. Your grandmother still has nice legs, and she's in her sixties."
I had never thought about having nice legs before. Not many boys in Whitehall High had, I would guess. I ventured, "Yeah, but I've got big feet."
"You're still young," she said. "You'll grow up to your feet and out of your pimples."
Her next step was the purchase of a "Do It Yourself" book on ballet. It was by Zachary Solov, whom we were to know much better later. Then we couldn't have dreamed that someday we would know him. Zachary's book involved complicated photographs of a slightly overweight young woman in zebra-striped all-over tights. They were kind of stream-of-movement pictures so you could see exactly what she was doing in plie, rond de jambe, frappe, developpe, the works. And there was a record that went with it. If you were willing to apply yourself, you could figure out precisely what movements went with what music and you could do a barre. Which we did.
I was a strange kid. I was playing football, basketball, and baseball. Football not well--I was too slender and couldn't really run fast--but the other sports not badly. I had promise. I also loved to dance and went to the high-school dances and danced with every girl there. Plain ones, fat ones, pretty ones, popular ones. I was really too young to be dating, but all the girls liked to dance with me because I could dance well. We did something called the Finale then. A kind of jitterbugging. And the two-step. I could waltz and polka, too. Where I learned those, I can't imagine. I must have seen them done somewhere. Not on television, of course; this was pre-television for most of the families in Whitehall. Some people had them, but not necessarily the wealthiest. Most people regarded television as they did Coca-Cola, Hershey bars, and Cadillacs. They existed but were unnecessary luxuries.
Belle-Mere was a chaperone at one of the high-school dances, and once she saw that I liked to dance, the jig was up. I had to join her once a day clinging to the back of a chair going through the Zachary Solov exercises. I studied the book, too. I guess I must have thought of it as another kind of sport. Certainly the fat girl in the striped bodysuit didn't lead to any thoughts of airy-fairy carryings-on.
And I loved my mother. We rather dismissed my father's departure, but Belle-Mere now had to work down at the florist shop. I worked after school and on weekends as a stock boy and checkout clerk at the Kroger. We didn't have any money, which didn't really matter, because Whitehall was one of those provincial towns where your family meant more than anything else. But even so. Balletomania was my mother's emotional support, and I wasn't going to be disloyal to her. So I studied our sappy little exercises with her, so she could transform me into another Robert Helpmann. Can you imagine any mother wanting to help her son become like the dainty and overly made-up Robert Helpmann? But she did. What did we know? I think even then I knew more than she did.
It isn't that those days seem so long ago to me now. The past doesn't seem all that distant, really. It's more as though it all happened in that alternate universe. Now, thirty-some years later, a big-deal doctor at St. Vincent's, there's very little opportunity to hang around chatting about your days as a ballet dancer and what a great pair of legs you had.
Make that have.
The only person I talk about those days with is Belle-Mere herself. She comes around a couple times a year to look at my daughters' legs. Margot's are all right, but what little girl doesn't have long legs at twelve? And Yvette seems to be more interested in horses and boys. At fourteen, it's too late for a girl anyway.
As it turned out, fifteen wasn't too late for me. That's what Edna McRae said when Belle-Mere hauled me off to Chicago for an interview and an audition.
It was in the spring after I was fifteen that Belle-Mere and I both realized that we'd pretty well done it with the one ballet book and the pudgy girl in the zebra tights. Belle-Mere had met some people from Chicago at the florist shop over Easter weekend. They had come in for some lilies. Which someone had said looked like the lilies Giselle tosses over her head to Albrecht in the second act of the ballet Giselle. They had just seen it in Chicago. My mother then asked them if they were dancers. They laughed and told her they weren't, but one woman had studied dance at one time, with a teacher named Edna McRae, who she said was quite famous as a teacher.
So my mother called the operator in Chicago and got Edna McRae's number. Called the McRae studio and inquired about studying there. And was told that students had to come in for an audition if they were no longer children.
Belle-Mere chickened out and told them about her wonderful, talented son, not mentioning herself. And they gave her an appointment. On a Saturday.
We got up very early on that Saturday morning and took the bus to Chicago, about four hours away. Belle-Mere had been to Chicago enough to find her way around. I was completely overwhelmed: the Loop with trains traveling above our heads, the streets jammed with people. I tried not to show it, but I was terrified of being separated from Belle-Mere. I was sure I would be lost forever once swept off in that mob of shoppers.
We found Edna McRae's studio in an office building. Just a little office with some dressing rooms at one end and a doorway into a large studio at the other. I looked in the door and saw Edna McRae.
I may have been afraid of Chicago, but I was even more frightened of Edna McRae. Five feet two, weighing in at 150, 160 pounds, wearing bright red hair. In the opposite corner, each weighing in at about forty pounds and wearing pink tutus, was a covey of little girls. They all had their guard up.
We had been told by the receptionist to take a seat on a bench just inside the door. That way we could watch the class and Miss McRae would talk to us after class. I had never seen a ballet classroom before. Big, rectangular mirrors covering one wall and long wooden railings running around the other three walls on two levels. One about waist height, the other lower.
As we tried to silently walk to the bench, without turning to look at us, Edna said, from the corner of her mouth, "What do you want?"
Belle-Mere pushed me in front of her. She said, "We want to dance. I mean, he wants to dance."
Edna, who had somehow wedged her refrigerator-shaped body into a black slipcover, turned and advanced towards us. The refrigerator was supported on two beautifully arched feet in immaculate pink kid slippers. She looked at me. Then at my feet. Then gestured towards the bench and turned back to the children.
"Let's get this straight, girls," she said, "this is no Dolly Dinkle school. We are here to work." The little girls fluttered to the lower rank of the wooden railing and took their places, one behind the other, one hand grasping the rail, their heels neatly together, their feet turned out, looking straight ahead.
She gestured to the pianist, an elderly lady, and chords struck. "Squatty-vous, girls." she said, and they were off. We proceeded to see our first ballet class. I was interested but Belle-Mere was in a trance. The Red Shoes was happening to her. As each of the exercises unfurled, one following another, I remembered the chubby girl in the striped tights that we had copied out of our instruction book back in Whitehall. Miraculously, each exercise we had clumsily done now was passing before my eyes, in exactly the same order, only now it was rows of slender little pink legs that were doing them.
I suppose then what attracted me most was the feeling that everyone knew exactly what they were doing, when to do it, and had faith that it was for some reason.
The little girls squatted down in their plies, feet together, then feet apart, then feet in front of each other, just as the book had shown. They pointed their little feet: in front of them, beside them, behind themselves. In the flesh, it didn't look so hard, and I was sure I could do it. Beside me, my mother was jerking a little spasmodically this way and that, doing those ronds de jambe and grands battements right along with the class. Pretty obviously, she was going to have to go to class, too. But, I decided, not with me.
When their barre work was done, the class, like a flock of little pink pigeons, whirled out onto the floor and fell into rows behind each other. Evidently the pecking order had already been established.
Miss McRae turned towards me and gestured towards the wooden barre. "Do you think you can do that?" she said. Belle-Mere said eagerly, "Of course, of course." In a voice that could have etched glass Miss McRae said, "Oh, I know you can: I was thinking more of him."
I nodded several times to show my enthusiasm. She turned back to her little pink flock and put them through their paces of pirouettes and jetes. They weren't half bad for a bunch of little kids from Chicago. Finally, she let them go, all perspiring faintly. Each in turn had to come up and shake Miss McRae's hand and curtsey before they could leave. Eager mothers' eyes peered around the doorjamb, and each snatched up her little pink pearl as she rolled out into the reception room.
Poor Belle-Mere. I'm sure she thought there would be endless enchanting days of watching ballet class. She didn't know it was to be her last for some time. Miss McRae had a strict rule that no one was to watch class--with rare exceptions. Particularly mothers.
After the class Miss McRae rather kindly explained to me that if I wished, I could go to the Capezio store down the block and buy black tights, a black dance belt, and either black or white ballet slippers. She preferred white because of the "finished" look it gave the foot.
I didn't know what a dance belt was and had no idea what a "finished" foot looked like, but I said nothing. I was game to try.
With these purchases, I could wear a white T-shirt, white socks, and a belt to roll the waist of the tights over. Obviously the dance belt was something other than this. This was her regulation classroom uniform for boys, and I never wore anything different in the years of classes that were to follow.
Later, in New York, dancers would come to class in assorted dilapidated sweaters, floppy knit leg warmers, ankle warmers, and even sometimes wool scarves. Some boys even affected low-cut leotards to show off their chests. But anyone who had started at the McRae school scorned this look as being "French." In our opinion, the French could do everything well that had to do with ballet-except dance it.
But I get ahead of myself.
Late in the afternoon, I had a private class with Edna to see what she thought of my possibilities. Belle-Mere stayed in the reception room, carefully rolling her head scarf from one corner to the opposite into a long tube, then unrolling it, and after several repetitions changing corners to roll it in the opposite direction. So it wouldn't get too wrinkled, I guess.
I was in the studio standing near the piano wearing my new outfit. I had discovered what a dance belt was: a wide belt of elastic, with a strap between the legs, wider on one side than the other. It was pinching my little privates very uncomfortably. Miss McRae explained to me the importance of the first position: heels together, legs straight, toes turned out as far as possible while holding the arches up.
She took the time to explain why she wanted me to do these things. She told me later that she had spotted me immediately as being a "mental" dancer; and she made the effort because I had such nice legs. "A shame to not get them on the stage," she said.
"We're training your legs to turn out at right angles from your hips," she said. Then she laughed. "In fact we're deforming you. Like the Chinese used to bind feet, but not so bad." I'm sure she knew that anyone of my age would love that. "If your feet turn out and your legs don't, we have accomplished nothing.
"Ballet requires that dancers move in flat planes across the stage, framed by the proscenium arch. The audience has to see your torso, arms, and head from the front, while they see your legs in profile. Once you are deformed, you can make beautiful images for the audience."
Of course I loved it. Maybe I wouldn't bend and weave like a lotus blossom on tiny deformed feet, but I was sure I would have some kind of exotic allure. I'm sure I didn't think I was doing this to drive men mad with desire, but it must have been under there somewhere. And I'm positive that's why Belle-Mere wanted to dance in the first place.
All the while, the pianist was tinkling away, playing the classroom melodies I was to come to know so well: Chopin for the petits battements, Faust for the grands battements, the second act of La Boheme for the ronds de jambe, Tchaikovsky for the adagios, Strauss sometimes for the allegro part where you jump and hurl yourself about. After an hour and a half, Miss McRae decided it was not too late for me to hope to dance. But, she demanded, did I hope to dance? She was a perceptive old bird. The hovering mother told her something. She was used to hovering mothers, of course, but not so accustomed to fifteen-year-old boys.
Now I can't imagine what I hoped for. I guess I hoped for something wonderful to happen to me. I was bored in Michigan, and I suppose I was enthusiastic as much for Miss McRae's sake as for my own. Like every interviewee, I wanted to give the right answers.
Thus it came to pass that Belle-Mere and I moved to Chicago. Moved to an apartment of which I only remember the smell of gas heaters and drying damp dance clothes. Belle-Mere was taking the adult beginner evening class at Miss McRae's school, which began when my last class ended. We passed like ships in the night. Exhausted, thin, pale, and happy.
I had to finish school, so I was enrolled at an academy for theatrical children where one attended classes in the morning only. God knows that most of the student body was theatrical if not destined for the theater. At other schools, they said that our school had to call off the Virgins' Parade; one was sick and the other one didn't want to march alone. Since I was always in good health, I guess I qualified as the one who wouldn't march alone.
At ballet school I took two classes every day. In the afternoon I was the lumbering oaf among the little girls in pink. Edna told me this would be my trial by fire. If I could stand being made a fool of by a bunch of little girls, I stood a chance of building a true technique.
In fact, it hardly bothered me at all. Like two kinds of wild animals grazing side-by-side in the Serengeti, the little pink ones never paid any attention to me. They were too young to feel any kind of boy/girl thing, and I wasn't old enough to be a parent. So they ignored me. And I ignored them.
In a few days, I was concentrating so hard on feeling my body and trying to get it to do the things that Miss McRae was showing us, I could have been training with a troupe of trained orangutans. I was so busy getting those drooping elbows up, those knees straight, those toes pointed that I wouldn't have noticed if anyone was laughing at me. Which they weren't. The children just flung themselves about and repetition did the trick for them. All they needed was instinct and the right proportions. Time they had. But I had to concentrate, and I found I liked to.
The five o'clock class, my second class of the day, was another matter. This advanced class was entirely made up of adult students and late teenagers. There were occasionally dancers from the Chicago Ballet which did have some good dancers--a few. The Broadway shows on tour also contributed dancers to the class when they were in town. Often they had good techniques, but they tended to be bouncier. Our local contributions, on the other hand, were largely pleasant girls with their hair pulled tightly back into a bun and large thighs and buttocks. Now they probably tell people, "I would have had a wonderful career as a dancer if I hadn't met Fred/Frank/Bill."
For the most part, the boys were a cross-section of Chicago's best-looking young homosexuals. Do most homosexuals decide at some point in their lives that they must dance? This group changed frequently. Not in style but in identity.
Going to ballet class as an adult male, in those days, was really putting it on the line. This was pre-Edward Villella, and ballet boys were never butch. To enter the ranks of admitted homosexuals required a certain level of physical beauty and noticeable personality. As with everything else, standards have slipped, and everyone including your uncle Fred is out of the closet. Men used to walk the streets looking for someone to love. Now they look like they're walking the streets looking for someone to kill.
In the company of these passing beauties of the day, I changed into my dance clothes every evening in the dilapidated little boys' dressing room. For my first class, I was all alone, but for the grown-ups' class I was in a twittering birdcage full of "Oh, my dears" and "Well, I said, Mary..." They were all friendly in their babbling, cheerful way. And it was from them I learned all the minutiae of dressing for ballet. Getting the exact size of shoe, so tight that your toes can't move; putting your full weight on the ball of one foot as you went onto demi-pointe would soon stretch it a lot. My first pair, which fit like bedroom slippers, were soon so loose they were dangerous. And they didn't stick tight to the foot so as to look good when you pointed your toes. Talk about "Oh, my dear!"
The boys showed me how to bend the back of the shoe to find the exact spots to sew on elastic. And they pointed out that I, or someone, had to sew the elastic carefully inside the shoe, so it looked good, but neatly under the binding of the drawstring, so it wouldn't give you blisters. Years later, I read that Oscar Levant had said that ballet was homosexual baseball. It was all of that and more. Tough, tough, tough on the feet, the ankles, the knees, the back. It may look like you're drifting about like a dandelion, but you're actually whanging and banging away like a trench digger.
They taught me how to correctly wear my dance belt, too. I supposed the wide side was to cover the crack in my buttocks and always wore it that way. Billy Somebody noticed this one day and said, "You've got your dance belt on backwards." I muttered that I thought if I wore it the other way around, it wouldn't cover my rear end. "But that's the whole point," said Billy, somehow tossing his blond crew cut and his perfect fanny at the same time as he exited the dressing room. I didn't quite understand what point he meant, but I turned it around anyway.
Every day I looked forward to watching the professional class, which immediately preceded ours. Student dancers were allowed to watch from the door, and I was always early for my class in order to watch the "real dancers." And the fact that we couldn't dance anywhere near as well as professionals didn't keep us from being critical.
The students in this class were largely from the Chicago Opera. I came to realize that touring companies flocked to Miss McRae's classes also, because she was famous in the ballet world for her ability to improve technique. When you wanted to turn more pirouettes, jump higher, improve your feet, beat those feet back and forth faster and more times, you went to Edna McRae.
When I saw luscious, curvy Mary Ellen Moylan of Ballet Theatre, I realized that a girl dancer didn't necessarily have to be straight up and down and sinewy. And when I saw Melissa Hayden with her cocky, bantam-rooster demeanor, I realized that a girl didn't have to be curvy to be sexy.
Belle-Mere took me to see all the visiting companies. The New York City Ballet, Ballet Theatre, and Colonel de Basil's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, with the inexplicable Nina Novak as the leading ballerina, were some of them. I began to be able to contrast some dancers on stage and in the classroom. Elegant Andre Eglevsky wasn't very different in the classroom from the aloof, impeccable prince in Swan Lake. He did pirouettes in a kind of funny loopedy-loop manner, like a shot putter getting ready to throw the shot. Miss McRae used to scream, "Up, Andre, up! Push down with your foot more." But he never changed. John Kriza was so butchy, ballsy sexy you didn't much care how well he danced--which wasn't fantastic. Watching them, I learned the secret of the stars: "Don't ever try to do anything on stage you don't do well." On stage you never saw their faults; they always seemed perfect.
I saw Claude Bessy, guest-starring with Ballet Theatre from the Paris Opera. From her, I learned to feel the thrill of watching a dancer accomplish difficult steps she might not be able to do. The American style was to suggest that nothing was difficult. The French way was to suggest that these steps were very difficult but somehow you would conquer them. She was a star who used the excitement of a tightrope walker to get her audience out of their seats.
When the legendary Alicia Markova, born Alice Marks, appeared in Giselle for Ballet Theatre, not a ballet student missed a performance, standing crushed together at the back of the theater in standing room. We all had heard that she had never taken class with other students. All her life she had had private classes. This made her into a kind of deity for us. She was also famous for her "spotting." When we did a series of turns, we were taught to pick a "spot" to look at, hold it with our eyes as long as possible as we turned and then whip the head around to pick it up again immediately. In this way, you didn't get dizzy. But Madame Markova didn't do this. She had four little spots, perhaps the corners of the stage. And when she turned, her little head went bing, bing, bing, bing like a hen plucking at grain. This was exotica. We loved it. We tried it. Impossible.
Ballet students are true students: for them, learning is everything. And like baseball fans, they are infatuated with the players. Markova had been trained by Enrico Cecchetti, teacher of Pavlova and Nijinsky. Cecchetti had left Russia with the famous Diaghilev company, which Markova had joined as a young girl in the 1920s. We were intrigued and wondered if her birdlike "spotting" was in the tradition of the Russian greats, or was it her own little London-born thing?
Both Belle-Mere and I fell under the spell of ballet tradition. We read about the great Romantic ballerinas. Marie Taglioni, first to get up on pointe and drift about in the early La Sylphide. First to be respectable and marry a count. Fanny Elssler, the sexy and less respectable ballerina specializing in Spanish dances. A peppy Austrian, she. Adorable little Carlotta Grisi, the Italian dancer who created Giselle. Choreographed for her by her lover, the dancer Jules Perrot, who sported a nifty pair of thighs if the old prints have it correctly. And the elegant Lucile Grahn. Danish. The most truly beautiful of the bunch.
Mom and I just loved imagining all these ladies and their carryings-on in the 1830s and 1840s. One of our new dancer friends told us about Taglioni's Jewel Case, an artwork created by Joseph Cornell and on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York: glass ice cubes fitted neatly into blue velvet cubicles in a small mahogany case. It was Cornell's homage to the story that Taglioni was en route through the snow to dance for the Czar in St. Petersburg when stopped by bandits. They demanded her jewels and her maid remonstrated with them: "Don't you know who this is? This is the great Taglioni." The bandits agreed if she would dance for them they would return the jewels. Her maid readied her in her huge white tutu, her wreath of artificial flowers, her pearl bracelets, her tiny pink satin slippers with only a little crocheting across the ends of the toes to help her stay on pointe. The bandits built a huge fire and laid blankets on the ground. And she descended into the polar night. Under the stars, like diamonds in the navy-blue sky, she danced to get her own diamonds back.
This was the world Belle-Mere longed to enter and the world she was dragging me into, willy-nilly. To be honest, I wasn't hanging back very much.
When we saw Alicia Markova, the last of the delicate, birdlike Romantic ballerinas, dance floating in a cloud of tulle skirt in the second act of Giselle, we could imagine we were at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg seated not far from the imperial box. Her tutu seemed larger than others I'd seen and seemed to be always moving. I caught her catching it with her hands when she went through fourth position with her arms, so it seemed to be moving restlessly about her all the time. When she did a large leg movement, it rippled over her leg like a wave, only her little pink slipper protruding from the foam.
Her dancing was a kind of moving textbook. When she did her little pas de chat, both feet disappeared under her tutu skirt and she seemed to be like a flower blowing in the wind. I knew one of her partners later and he said she would never prepare for a jump to help her partner. He had to lift her dead weight unaided. Everything she did had to look effortless or the magic of a Romantic ballerina was marred.
Somehow, that effortlessness made sense of the old ballet. She was so much like a spirit drifting about, you really believed she had come back from the dead to protect her lover. It made perfect sense for those moments she was on stage. Her lover, the impeccable, elegant, blond Erik Bruhn, made it easier to understand.
This was our world, Belle-Mere's and mine. Up to our necks in ballet classes, going to ballets, talking about ballet, and reading about ballet. We cared for nothing else. We soon developed the unshockability that goes with the world of dance. That a ballerina was the impresario's mistress meant nothing. But if she didn't have legs that were fully turned out or if she had arches that drooped, we were speechless--this was bad! Dance is the most ruthless of disciplines. One can claim to be an actor and never act, and if there is a performance, it is so hard to say if it's good or bad. A singer can claim to sing, and much is forgiven because the voice develops late and perhaps this is an off-day. But a dancer must dance. There's no faking it. Everyone can clearly see how well the steps are executed, how much emotion is expressed.
If you say you dance, you have to dance. There are no two ways about it.